TUCKED FAR OFF the beaten path in the Sierra of California, about 20 miles from the quaint storefronts of central Nevada City, sits a house that looks like it belongs in eighteenth-century Kyoto. Photographer Aya Brackett, who now lives in Oakland with her husband and two small children, grew up here, and returns often to enjoy a rustic respite from city life. The possibility of retreating to the woods was particularly welcome this past year, as COVID-19 restrictions drove young families stir crazy. In addition to a chance to get away, the house also offers Brackett an opportunity to see her childhood anew, through her own children’s eyes. Here, they enjoy the kind of freedom only afforded by an unspoiled expanse of nature, in what feels like a different temporality, a slower rhythm, and the quiet of a place apart, without Wi-Fi or other distractions. This is how Brackett grew up, and seeing her kids here calls forth a range of emotions, with nostalgia at the center.
The house was built by Brackett’s father Len, who was a Zen student and Zendo cook at Tassajara before training as a traditional Japanese temple carpenter in Kyoto in the 1970s. Learning the craft as an apprentice — and learning Japanese as he went — was taxing, with 70- or 80-hour work weeks and few days off for five years. He met his wife, Brackett’s mother, in Japan, and when they returned to the States he started East Wind, a design-build company that specializes in adapting Japanese architecture to modern Western tastes. The dominant elements are natural wood, supported by posts and lintels rather than joined by nails, as well as movable screens and sliding doors. And like all traditional Japanese architecture, an interplay with nature is paramount. Len now lives in a small cabin he built on the family’s land, but he meanders to the main house often when his children and grandchildren are in town.
Since the surrounding trees have grown taller, the interior of the solar-powered main house is more shaded than it was in Brackett’s youth. Inside, the play of shadow and light is dramatic, especially given the absence of overhead lighting. At night, the space is warmly lit by floor lamps.
A strip of hallways called engawa borders the interior. This traditional Japanese building element, separated by sliding shoji, creates a transition area between the inside and outside. “When I was little, I used to lay here all the time,” says Brackett of one sunny spot. “The thing I really like about this house is how the outside is so much a part of the experience. It’s really about seeing outside.” Len concurs, paraphrasing a Japanese aphorism: “The house is just a place to look at the garden.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the views are divine. Even the view from the tub — the bath is kept hot by a fragrant cedar cover also made by Len — includes a sour cherry tree and an Asian pear tree. Birds titter in the woods that lay beyond. The effect is one of pure serenity.
Off the grid, they are invited to be ultra present with one another, to savor food and family connection, and especially to watch their children discover the pleasures of this special place.
Brackett’s childhood memories are built into this house — literally. She gathered the rocks around the wood stove in her mother’s old study from the nearby creek. “I think I got five dollars,” she smiles. A long bamboo bar stretching the length of the kitchen can be lowered from the high ceiling by pulley. “We hung our clothes here in the wintertime when it was too cold,” she says. “We didn’t have a dryer.”
For Brackett, the house is a source of deep comfort and nostalgia. And she mostly enjoys the fact that being here entails a forced withdrawal from everyday life. Sometimes she makes the trek here with her brother Sylvan (owner of Rintaro, a popular San Francisco izakaya also built by East Wind) and his family. Visiting is an important way for the siblings to preserve continuity with their past. Off the grid, they are invited to be ultra present with one another, to savor food and family connection, and especially to watch their children discover the pleasures of this special place.
She reflects on the way she grew up, with the wonder of nature as a given, and a home that revealed handcrafted surprises. She sometimes muses as to whether she should be raising her kids in this way. But as long as she keeps the connection to the old house alive, the magic remains. As we talk, she lifts a piece of the wooden floor beside the irori, a sunken hearth in the family’s dining room, and reveals a storage area for firewood. She calls her six-year-old over and says, “Miya , did you know there was a secret trap door here?”
On whether she knew how cool her house was as a kid:
No [laughs], it was just like whatever. The moment I realized it was when I had a birthday party and all these friends came over and said, “Whoa, your house is so crazy, but really cool.” It just took me a really long time to realize it.
On whether the house ever made her feel outcast:
I didn’t feel outcast. All my friends grew up in kind of funky, handbuilt homes. My best friend’s house — her dad’s an architect, her mom is a woodworker — the doors are all handmade and they had beautiful weavings, all their ceramics were handmade. I grew up with people who were in that world, but when I went to high school at a very conventional all-American high school in Nevada City, whose mascot is a gold miner, and where football is huge, I went to other people’s houses and thought, ‘Oh, these are different.’ I was pretty sheltered up here, actually.
On the community she grew up in:
I’m actually still really close to many of the people I grew up with ... I was lucky to have been born with a cohort of friends and their parents because there aren’t a lot of people that live up here. There were a lot of people who came because of Gary Snyder, and settled in his land, and people would come to study Zen. My dad was part of that generation in the early 1970s when a lot of people were moving here really intentionally, the back-to-the-land movement, and they were coming from middle- and upper-middle-class families. Some of my parents’ friends grew up in Chicago or New York. Some of these people were coming from more cosmopolitan backgrounds, but a big proportion of the population wasn’t that. I had a friend who had a bathtub in the kitchen. They also had an amazing vegetable garden; the mom grew all their food. They used mason jars for cups and it wasn’t like country chic [laughs], and they had scary dogs and guns. It’s a mix up here. There are artists and writers. Gary Snyder was here, Allen Ginsberg was here for a while. There are a lot of furniture makers and artisans.
On the difference between her daughter’s childhood and her own:
I think about Miya growing up in Oakland because we have a house with three other homes on a big lot, so Miya has all these aunties, and she can run into everybody’s house, and I think, ‘Wow, that must be amazing.’ There are times when I think, ‘I wish Miya could have this’ [gestures outside], like quiet, nature. I was a little socially awkward; Miya is very social and I think it’s because from a very young age she’s been around so many great people.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Aya Brackett Photographer
Aya Brackett’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Monocle, Bon Appetit, and more. She has also photographed many cookbooks for notable chefs, and received a James Beard Award for her photography. She is based in Oakland, California.